De­spite a life on the run, cou­ple be­gins to bridge a Bud­dhist-Mus­lim di­vide

The Buffalo News - - WORLD NEWS - By Suhasini Raj and Jef­frey Get­tle­man NEW YORK TIMES

LADAKH RE­GION, In­dia – In front of a tin-roofed house with the Hi­malaya Moun­tains ris­ing be­hind it, about 300 wed­ding guests waited on a big green lawn, ea­ger for the ar­rival of the bride and groom.

As the cou­ple ap­peared, the guests formed a happy scrum around them, whisk­ing them through the door­way and into the house. The rooms smelled of the com­ing feast: tan­doori chicken, salty tea, fresh rolls and suc­cu­lent goat meat cooked in yo­gurt and spices.

But the bride’s en­tire fam­ily was con­spic­u­ously miss­ing from the party.

The bride, Stanzin Sal­don, is from a Bud­dhist fam­ily, and the groom, Mur­taza Agha, is a Mus­lim. Both grew up in Ladakh, a re­mote re­gion of Jammu and Kash­mir state in In­dia. So what hap­pens around here when a Bud­dhist wo­man falls for a Mus­lim man? Chaos.

The young cou­ple’s ro­mance has spawned protests, shut down busi­nesses, caused fist­fights and pit­ted Mus­lim and Bud­dhist lead­ers against each other. The po­lice have been forced to in­ter­vene, and so have the courts.

For sev­eral days the two even had to go on the run. They drove around the nearby Kash­mir Val­ley, which is crawl­ing with mil­i­tants and sol­diers, wor­ried sick about be­ing caught to­gether.

But Sal­don, flush with fresh love, would do it all over again. “We found peace in a con­flict re­gion,” she said earnestly.

The Ladakh re­gion is widely con­sid­ered one of In­dia’s most charm­ing spots.

The main town, Leh, feels like a glass mu­seum case of tra­di­tional Bud­dhist cul­ture del­i­cately perched on a shelf high in the Hi­malayas.

Each year, thou­sands of In­dian and for­eign tourists come here to stroll around the old Bud­dhist monas­ter­ies, take pic­tures of the saf­fron-robed monks and eat yakcheese pizza.

In the west lies the mainly Mus­lim town of Kargil, where green-domed mosques rise be­hind stores with Ara­bic names. Tak­ing Kargil and Leh to­gether, this re­gion’s pop­u­la­tion is about a quar­ter mil­lion, split roughly in half between Bud­dhists and Mus­lims, along with a few Hin­dus.

In Leh, Bud­dhist women grum­ble that there aren’t enough Bud­dhist men around be­cause so many have be­come monks.

The Bud­dhist-Mus­lim di­vide seems to be get­ting sharper in this part of the world. Neigh­bor­ing Bangladesh is strug­gling to ab­sorb hun­dreds of thou­sands of Mus­lim Ro­hingyas, an eth­nic group from Myan­mar, who re­cently fled atroc­i­ties by Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary and Bud­dhist ma­jor­ity.

But to Sal­don, 30, and Agha, 32, none of this mat­tered.

Theirs is a Ladakh love af­fair, through and through. They met on a col­lege trekking trip to the Hi­malayas. They kept in touch.

Agha, a govern­ment en­gi­neer, and Sal­don, a so­cial worker, both lived in the city of Jammu, south of Ladakh, and they couldn’t stop call­ing each other for cof­fee and lunch. Sal­don said she could feel her­self fall­ing in love with the soft-spo­ken and gen­tle-man­nered Agha. But she kept it a se­cret.

Af­ter she was nearly killed in a rick­shaw ac­ci­dent, though, she re­called, “It was Mur­taza’s face that floated be­fore my eyes. I de­cided life was too short and I should con­fess my love.”

Agha, who grew up in Kargil, couldn’t have been hap­pier.

But when he told his fam­ily he wanted to marry a Bud­dhist girl from Leh, his fa­ther’s re­sponse was: Im­pos­si­ble.

“Why marry a Leh girl?” his fam­ily kept ask­ing. There were so many more Mus­lim op­tions.

In July 2016, with help from one of Agha’s un­cles, the cou­ple held a very small pri­vate wed­ding un­der a clear blue sky by one of Kargil’s sparkling moun­tain streams.

Then they went back to their jobs, the world obliv­i­ous to their re­la­tion­ship. They main­tained sep­a­rate homes, plan­ning to one day unite.

But soon their fam­ily mem­bers found out. While Agha’s peo­ple took it in stride, Sal­don’s went berserk. They pulled her out of Jammu and locked her in the fam­ily home in Leh. Her fa­ther spat in her face, and later called on shamans to per­form cer­e­monies to try to make her for­get about Agha, she said.

Sal­don said she lost 20 pounds. She was heart­sick to be away from Agha and ter­ri­fied of her fa­ther, who kept scream­ing at her.

“I was to­tally cut off from the out­side world,” she said. “I feared death as my fa­ther shouted, ‘Why did you not die no sooner than you were born?’’’

One morn­ing she sneaked out. She knew her fam­ily would chase her, so she went to court and won a re­strain­ing or­der de­mand­ing that they leave her alone.

But the prob­lem was big­ger than her fam­ily now, and things in Leh were about to get sticky.

The Bud­dhist com­mu­nity as­so­ci­a­tion was so out­raged by the re­la­tion­ship, and the fact that Sal­don had fled, that it sent young men stomp­ing through Leh’s main bazaar, de­mand­ing that all the shop­keep­ers help bring her back. Bud­dhist toughs threat­ened taxi driv­ers and mer­chants from Kargil, telling them they weren’t al­lowed to work in Leh. A few men got into fist­fights – all over a cou­ple most of them didn’t even know.

Harsh Mal­ho­tra, chief co­or­di­na­tor for the Love Com­man­dos, a vol­un­tary In­dian or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps cou­ples fight off ar­ranged mar­riages and deal with ha­rass­ment from their fam­i­lies, said this case was get­ting at­ten­tion across the coun­try. But he wasn’t sur­prised.

“Just as the Ganges flows freely, so, too, lovers of any caste, creed and sect,” he said.

This Ladakhi ver­sion of Romeo and Juliet was easy to politi­cize, he said, be­cause the cou­ple came from mid­dle-class back­grounds and were per­fect fod­der for “those who con­sider them­selves to be the self-ap­pointed guardians of cul­ture and so­ci­ety.”

Leh has since calmed down. But the episode has put a lit­tle ex­tra steam in the quest by some of Leh’s Bud­dhists to get more au­ton­omy for the Ladakh re­gion.

As for the cou­ple, they seem to have weath­ered this un­scathed. She is hop­ing her par­ents will come around some­day soon and wel­come her and her hus­band with a hug.

New York Times

A hand­out photo of Mur­taza Agha, left, and Stanzin Sal­don at a wed­ding party hosted by a friend in Kargil, In­dia. The ro­mance between Agha, who is Mus­lim, and Sal­don, who is Bud­dhist, has spawned protests.

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